Public Groupactive 6 months, 2 weeks ago
A work titled “For Those in Peril on the Sea” by artist Hew Locke is displayed during a media tour of the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) in Miami, Florida December 3, 2013.
It is one of the world’s biggest and most significant art festivals in a city renowned for sun, style and celebrity. Yet when Art Basel Miami Beach opens to the public on Thursday, the popular annual gathering of artists, gallery owners, collectors and dealers will take on an additional role – as a barometer of the wild, nearly unfathomable boom market in contemporary art.
Just three weeks ago, the world’s ultra-rich art collectors spent more than a billion dollars at a pair of auctions of contemporary art at the New York branches of Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud sold for $142.5m, a world record for a painting at auction, and Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange) set a new high of $58.4m for a work by a living artist.
Those staggering figures might have led open-mouthed observers to wonder whether the plutocrats – or “ultra-high-net-worth individuals,” as the auction houses call them – would have any cash left to spend at the end of the year. Yet the 12th edition of the winter spinoff of Art Basel, the prestigious Swiss art fair, is drawing the usual assortment of private jet passengers, museum bigwigs, advisers, consultants and social butterflies.
For Art Basel Miami Beach more than 250 of the world’s leading art galleries have assembled paintings, sculptures and drawings by 4,000 artists -and while prices are not as stratospheric as in the New York sale rooms, the galleries are set to do serious business at Wednesday’s VIP preview and throughout the week.
“Whether it’s the atmosphere of Miami, the celebrity aura of the place, or the timing just before Christmas, people seem to be very loose spending money there,” said Allan Schwartzman, an art adviser and industry analyst based in New York.
“Tastes change and styles change, but there’s such a depth of interest in serious art,” he said. “You can’t predict the future, but the market is strong based on the depth of international wealth.”
Tens of thousands of visitors are expected to attend the five-day event, which features official exhibitions split into “sectors” at the Miami Beach Convention Centre and elsewhere around the city. At Tuesday night’s opening event for Art Basel’s outdoor art “sector,” the New York artist Kate Gilmore presented a performance that featured nearly a dozen strapping topless models – male and female – beating metal cubes with sledgehammers for the better part of two hours.
Alongside Art Basel, another 20 or so satellite art fairs with their own exhibitions, lectures, film screenings and other events – many in Miami’s downtown arts district- have glommed onto the main event. Some, including the decorative arts fair Design Miami and a new fair devoted to Brazilian art, are already under way.
There are also big names in Miami’s museums, which often save their best programming for Basel season. This year’s biggest draw is the new Pérez Art Museum Miami, a $220m waterfront facility designed by Herzog and de Meuron, the Swiss architectural duo responsible for Tate Modern in London and the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing. The museum opens this week with an exhibition of the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who is displaying 38 tons of straightened steel rebar in remembrance of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed more than 90,000 people.
Neon sculptures by the British artist Tracey Emin, who bought an apartment in South Beach this year, are on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. Beach towels at the swanky Fontainebleau Hotel have been embroidered with the words ‘kiss me’ from one of her pieces in her honour.
But works from lesser-known artists and emerging talents, many from Miami and from Latin America, have always been a mainstay of Art Basel events.
“There’s a youthful energy and vitality to Miami’s arts scene that defines international trends,” said Michael Spring, director of cultural affairs for Miami-Dade county.
“We have a very young cultural influence that’s been on the rise for the last 25 years. Art Basel has accelerated that growth in a way we couldn’t have imagined. Even in the depths of recession it continued to boom beach hack and now we’re coming out of it the momentum is unstoppable.”
With such an influx of the global super-rich in a town already known for hedonism, however, Art Basel Miami Beach has ballooned into an all-out festival of cash and champagne that threatens to overshadow the art. Jewelery companies are hosting cocktail parties, private wealth managers are organising discreet breakfast events, and real estate brokers are planning open houses for waterfront properties at obscene prices. And Basel, especially once the weekend comes, also draws a roving brigade of scenesters who don’t go to the fair at all, but instead prefer to crash the endless poolside parties. The Miami New Times has published a helpful Art Basel party guide, highlighting the best of nightlife and its recommended places to get drunk during the festival.
Despite the myriad distractions, however, Art Basel organisers insist the real business of the event is introducing contemporary art to new collectors by bringing together artists, galleries and buyers at the same venue.
And according to Schwartzman, the remarkable prices achieved last month in New York are indicative of robust demand, though whether that ripples out past the largest dealers to smaller galleries is less certain.
“The focus is more on living artists so they tend to sell at lower prices, but I’ve known many sales in the high six figures and low seven figures. The art market in general, and Art Basel in particular have grown dramatically, and the market is healthy and alive.
“Since 2008, it’s followed a similar path to society in general: the top does very well, there’s a lot of interest at the lower levels and the middle sinks.”
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk